Sunday, May 29, 2016


My writing group partner and I are trading off partial drafts today. We're both around halfway through, so we're passing on the first part of our drafts while we work on the second.

This is sorta a stressful thing. I mean, it's the first time that anyone other than me sees this thing that I've been pouring hours, sometimes days, of effort into. Someone else will be leafing through a story that has alternately sparked my passion and left me frustratedly contemplating what must be a complete lack of talent, judging its form and content.

There's a very big part of me that hates this point in the process.

There's a bigger part of me that thinks that this is the best and most important thing I can do for my story.

I have been living in this story for a little over a month. I'll be here for another month or more, putting together the pieces.

I can't see it anymore.

It's like a fish in water. Water is the fish's day-to-day. It spends so much time in the water, surrounded by the water, that it doesn't even notice the water so much anymore.

Every draft needs critique--to be put under a microscope so that the writer can see how the little bits and pieces are working and figure out what parts are doing more harm than good.

But self-critique is pretty difficult.

Part of this, at least for me, is that my internal critic tends to hang out with that anxious, self-sabotaging part of my brain. Where a useful internal critic might say, "Y'know, this scene is dragging and doesn't really serve a plot purpose--let's toss it," mine says, "This is terrible, and there is no way to fix it; you should just stop before you embarrass yourself." One of those sees a problem and offers a possible solution. The other makes me want to crawl into my bed and never get out. It's sort of a crap shoot which critic I'll hear on any given day. I've gotten better at telling the difference between the two and at dismissing the second in favor of the first. Self-critique is still a difficult thing, though, and there's only so much that I, as the only person who knows the entire story can do.

Which brings me to the second issue with self-critique: I know the entire story. I have information that the reader doesn't. Which means that, if there's a gap in what's communicated to the reader, I probably won't see it.

It's the same reason that it's a bad idea for an actor to also direct a stage play. The actor is inside the play--they can't see all of the moving pieces from the audience's perspective. They can't tell, for instance, that all of the actors are bunched up on stage right for half of scene three or that they way they've placed on performer means that another can't be seen. It takes outside eyes to notice these sorts of issues.

I know the back story. I know why each character is saying the things they're saying and doing the things they're doing. I know how the world of the story works. And it's my job to make sure that all of that information gets communicated to the reader.

The best way to make sure that I've done that is to have someone else read it.

My writing group partner knows the bare-bones of the story and the characters. She doesn't know all of the ins and outs of the worlds or the details of the characters' backstories. If something is confusing to her or falls wrong, she'll notice, and she'll tell me.

This is never an easy thing. No writer ever really wants someone else to say that there's something wrong with the work that they've poured themselves into. And most friends of writers, the group of people likely to be asked to provide these initial reads, don't want to hurt their friend's feelings by saying that their pet project needs to go back to the drawing board.

In spite of the weird feelings that both parties may have about it, there is well and truly noting more useful to a writer than an honest and thorough critique. I may not want to hear that my opening chapter--my favorite chapter in the piece--is too long and ultimately unnecessary. But if I never hear that, then I never fix it. I send a slogging and unnecessary chapter out in my queries, and I get rejection after rejection.

Obviously, critique can go too far. A reader that sounds like my internal critic on the bad days, for example, is not terribly useful. Critic has to be honest, not devastating.

On the flip side, a critic that is all suns and roses isn't helpful, either. It's great that you loved the draft. But I know that the draft has problems, and "I loved it!," nice as it is to hear, doesn't help me fix them.

It's not too hard to make the difficult critiques easier to swallow. The sting of hearing that my favorite chapter needs to go is a little lessened by the statement that the environmental elements throughout the draft are spot on. This mix of "fix this" and "this is working" is, I've found, the most effective for getting me to go back through the draft and make the changes--even the ones that hurt a little.

Handing off a draft is a nerve-wracking process. When the feedback is good, though, there's nothing better for a story.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Alpha Beta

(Coincidentally, I think the title of this post was also the name of a beta fish that my sister/her roommate had in college.

Alpha the Beta. Get it? The jokes are strong with my family.)

I mentioned on the Facebook page this week that I've been working on the alpha draft of a new project (which, until I finalize a title for it, I'm just going to refer to as "Project 2016").  This is sort of a lie.

I started working on the actual alpha draft of this project--the actual first full write up of this story--a little over ten years ago.

Project 2016 is, technically, the first book I ever wrote.

And I'm starting it over.

Let me explain.

It's not like I've been working on this project nonstop for ten years. I mentioned in a previous post that my workflow has, until recently, been pretty spotty. This work went untouched for almost my entire time in college.

I also wrote what will be my debut novel, Evin, during this time. (More updates on that as I'm given the go ahead to make them.)

Since much of the work on this project has been stop and start, and since so much of the early work was done so long ago--at a time when I was an awful writer as opposed to a mediocre one--I have essentially had to restart the entire thing.

On the upside, this means that my outlines are super thorough. I've already written the whole thing and sort of know what aspects didn't work and need to be adjusted.

On the downside, it means that my expectations are higher.

The alpha draft of Evin was written in a flurry. Most of the first draft was written during NaNoWriMo (NationalNovel Writing Month) 2012. I’d written about 10,000 words and had a rough outline, but I was mostly just writing. I knew that parts of the draft weren’t good and would have to be reworked if I was ever to try to shop the book around. It was an experiment, and if the alpha draft sucked, that was just part of it.

But I don’t have that luxury with Project 2016. I’ve written the alpha draft. This should be the revision—the draft where it starts to be good, where it begins to resemble the “final” product (I’m among those that think that a creative work is never really complete—it’s just left alone).

The thing with the actual alpha draft, the one that I started ten years ago, is that it’s bad. Like, really bad.

There’s a specific type of cognitive bias that’s called the Dunning-Krugereffect. The crux of this effect is basically that people who have more skill or know more about a certain thing tend to underestimate their competence, while people with less skill or knowledge tend to overestimate their competence.

I was seventeen ten years ago. I, objectively, knew very little about writing. I thought I was one of the best writers in the world.

In the last couple of years, I’ve been trying to learn more about the craft. I’ve realized how little I actually knew—how little I still know—about the art of storytelling. I recognize how far I have to go.
The true alpha draft of Project 2016 is a mess. The story is vague. The characters, while charming, aren’t fleshed out. My voice in undeveloped, and I have no understanding of how to manage point of view.

The skeleton of the book is there—but it is absolutely just the bare bones.

Revisions are always a bit of a nightmare. Having to rework, add in, or cut set pieces and character moments can suck. Refining the connective tissue takes time and requires that the writer be brutal with their own work.

Having a decent starting point makes a huge difference. The alpha draft of Evin wasn’t great, but it was more than just bones (my writing group partner referred to it as a “skinny bean pole”—which sounds way more adorable than the draft felt). The revising process was just refining—not reconstructing.

So I’m having to alter the way that I’m looking at Project 2016. I can’t look at what’s technically a beta draft as a beta draft. It’s a second alpha. An alpha-beta.

The work is still slow going, but adjusting my approach to the project has freed me up a little. I’ve separated myself from second-draft expectations, and the work is a little bit easier.

With any luck, it’ll be enough for me to finally get this story working the way I want it. After ten years, I’d love to see that.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Facebook Page

Hi, all.

For those that don't know, I've recently started up an author page on Facebook. You can find it here:

This page will mainly be a home for announcements, pictures, and things like that. Some of those things will be cross-posted here, but some will likely only live on the Facebook page. It'll also update with blog posts, so if you don't use the RSS feed, you'll still be able to keep up with updates.

If you get a chance, stop by the page and give it a like. Not to tilt the bean can too much, but there will probably be a lot of activity over there in the coming months.

Monday, May 16, 2016


I mentioned in my last post that I'm trying to rely less on motivation than on discipline.

My results with this have been mixed.

In spite of lagging motivation, I've managed to develop a daily writing habit--mainly through the use of a tool called The Magic Spreadsheet. This gamifies daily writing, giving you points for each writing session, each consecutive day, the number of words written, and so on. You get enough points, and you "level up." It's a pretty neat thing, so if you're trying to build a daily (or at least consistent) writing habit, I'd recommend it.

All told, even with the funk I've been in for the past couple of weeks, I've been getting work done. But I've noticed something: I might be working consistently, but the level of output--the words-per-session--has dropped.

Part of this is a business issue. At the same time as I'm trying to put together the draft of this new piece, I'm also prepping a summer course that starts at the end of the month, nailing down my teaching schedule for the fall, putting together my teaching portfolio, and celebrating weddings of two of my best friends. So, yeah, 1,000 words a day isn't really as feasible under these conditions.

The other part is that sometimes I want to do things other than work. I mentioned in my post about my process that, when I panic about my productivity, I pretty much stop doing everything that's not work. The flipside of that is that sometimes, when I'm working, I'll latch on to any distraction that's available. (The past couple of days, it's been the YouTube series JourneyQuest. If you're a fan of D&D, I highly recommend it.)

I don't think that this sort of boom-and-bust productivity cycle is out of the ordinary, and since I'm not having periods where I stop working all together, maybe it's not bad. But that doesn’t stop me from feeling badly about it.

Every time I look at the relatively tiny word counts for the past week, I'm disappointed in myself.

"You were doing so well last month," I think. "You're just gonna fall back into old habits. You'll never be able to make this work."

In the past three months, I've had more success with my writing than I've ever had in my life. The possibility of writing going from a hobby to a side job is more real than it's ever been, and I'm terrified that I'm going to screw it up.

If I'm being honest, I'm probably past the point where I'm likely to fall into the habit of months-long hiatuses from writing. My schedule has been pretty consistent for almost six months--that's going to be a difficult habit to break. My panic isn't necessary--and is probably more hindrance than help.

There's a balance, somewhere, between panic-induced writing whirlwind and writing two words per hour between watching YouTube videos. I think maybe the first step is taking the self-criticism out of the equation. I don't mean that I'm going to stop being critical of my own work, because that's never going to happen. But I'm going to try to cut myself a little slack. I am working. I'm working at a better pace than I ever have. And it's okay to have some lower word count days--it might even be necessary.

And seriously, JourneyQuest is absolutely hilarious.

Saturday, May 7, 2016


It's been sort of a rough week. 

Not to say that anything bad has happened, because nothing really has. Most of the problem is my own neuroses--every so often I have periods like the one I'm in the middle of right now: spans of a few days to a few weeks where I feel like everything I touch spoils and all of the skills I thought were in my possession really aren't. My productivity and self-concept both plummet during these periods, which makes going about the business of everyday life a slog on the good days and all but impossible on the bad ones. So far, I've managed to meet all of my obligations, self-imposed and otherwise, but I've done so with considerably less determination and energy than usual.

Motivation, as you might expect, is difficult to come by in these periods. The spark of enthusiasm that I rely upon during my more manic periods is conspicuously absent, and the flow of words slows to a painful trickle.

The way that I've dealt with these low periods has changed over the years. I mentioned in my last post that I had a tendency to abandon my writing. In that post, I blamed my lack of planning--which was certainly part of the problem. But the loss of motivation was just a much a factor--if not more.

In the near decade-and-a-half that I've been writing, I've learned one important thing: motivation is a load of crap.

Maya Angelou knows what's up.
I understand the appeal of image of the creator visited by the muses, wrapped up in inspiration pouring forth pages and pages of magnificent words. Pages filled as if by magic.
But it never works out that way-- at least, not in my experience.
Writing when motivated is easy and without risk. Inspiration takes the work out of writing.
But writing, no matter how much I love it, is work.
The thing about motivation is that it's fickle. The situation has to be just so for motivation or inspiration to show up. And even if it does deign to visit, it often doesn't linger. At best, there might be a furious burst of activity before falling again into a rut.
In my experience, writing when I'm inspired or motivated or what have you means not writing very much at all. There are so many excuses for not spending my time working on my writing. I've got too many other things to do. I spent all day at work, and I'm tired. The house is too noisy. I can't get comfortable. If I don't have the ideas, the writing won't be good. And on and on and on.
The trouble with all of these excuses is that they're just that--excuses. My writing's not better when I wait to be inspired. In fact, it's usually worse, if only because I'm out of practice. Writing, like any other skill requires practice, and, like any skill, it can atrophy over time. Waiting for motivation and inspiration can also mean allowing long spans of time to pass between writing times, making it easier for the various threads of a story to become confused or lost (most of my early experience with writing is opening a document that's sat abandoned for months and asking myself "Where the hell was I going with that?").
Motivation and inspiration are not reliable. They don't help me get things done. In the same way that I never finished anything before outlines, I never finished anything waiting on motivation.
In the last several months, I've been reevaluating the way that I write, trying to determine what does and doesn't work with my process, and trying to make myself a more effective, more productive writer. And if I've become sure of anything in that time, it's that my reliance on motivation and inspiration has to go.
When I started graduate school, one of the faculty members in my department told my cohort that, when it comes to success, being talented matters less than being tenacious. Certainly, that's a truth in grad school, but I think it's true outside that realm, too. 
I haven't been motivated this week. I haven't felt particularly talented. But I've been tenacious. I'm nearly 15,000 words in on a first draft of my latest project. It's a first draft, so it's quality is hit or miss (all first drafts are--well, you know), but at its worst, it's better than the work I've done in the past. 
I'm not motivated this week. But I'm not going to let my lack of motivation stop me.

Sunday, May 1, 2016


When I'm not writing, I teach at a local university. This past week was finals week for my students, and one unlucky class had to write a final paper to complete their course.

As you could probably guess, I place a great deal of value on my students learning how to write effectively. I stress that they need to take their time with the paper--to start it well ahead of time and to do multiple drafts. I even offer to review completed drafts for them.

And I still get papers that were clearly written the night before. Which wouldn't be a problem if so many of the papers weren't so very disorganized.

 My students have had great ideas this semester--they know their stuff, by and large. But when it comes to getting the idea across, they've been pretty scatterbrained. They don't value the outline.

Bryan Q. Miller, author of, among many other things, my favorite Batgirl run, extolling the virtues of the outline. Twitter format, so read from the bottom.

This isn't something that's limited to college students. A lot of folks seem to think that they don't need an outline--what happens as it comes out of their brains will be good enough.

When people talk about writers, they sometimes make a distinction between two types: planners and "pantsers." Planners lay out the details of the story ahead of time. They know, to a certain extent, what the end product is going to look like. Pantsers, on the other hand, figure out the story as they go along. The end is as much a surprise to them as it is to anyone else until it's written.

There are pitfalls to both of these approaches. Planners can sometimes box themselves in. Pantsers can sometimes lose the thread of a story. And I'd argue that most writers are some combination of both.

At least most writers that have been at it for a while.

When I first started writing, I never had a plan. I told myself that I'd figure out where the story was going as I went along, that my first drafts were fine. I bristled against every school writing assignment that required that I do more than turn in a final product. I was a good writer--I knew that. Plenty of people--parents, teachers, friends--had told me so.

But, apart from those school assignments, I never finished everything. By the time I was fifteen, I had no less than three unfinished novels languishing in notebooks and on hard drives. I would lose interest in the stories, or I wouldn't be able to figure out what to do next. At the time, I wasn't super worried about this. "Writer's block," I would sigh, bemoaning how difficult it was to be an artist--which, of course, made me feel more like a real, tortured artist. 

(I was absolutely "that kid," and I still cringe about it.) 

More recently, I've been using outlines for all of my writing. At first, the products of these outlines were stiff and forced--though they did lead to fewer instances of problems like, say, killing off the same character twice (oof) and a remarkable decrease in how often I experienced writer's block (the benefits of knowing the goal of the story).

There are really two things I've learned over the last couple of years: first, that outlines are necessary. A novel is big. Even a short one is going to have hundreds of beats for a writer to manage, hundreds of character moments, and hundreds of little facts about the world or the plot or the characters to keep up with. Less experienced writers tend to believe that they'll be able to keep up with all of these things on their own. It's their world; it lives in their head! Of course they'll be able to manage all of it and never forget that the scene they're writing already happened fifty pages ago. But that's really a lot harder than it seems like it'd be. Having a plan written out can keep that from happening, can help you figure out when you need to start planting the seeds for a plot point, or remind you that you need to introduce a Chekhov's Gunman to help you make a particular transition later in the manuscript. Novels are whole worlds--having the skeleton of the world written out somewhere smooths out most of the creation.

The second thing that I've learned is that an outline doesn't have to be set in stone. Novels are, to a certain extent, living things. They change as they grow. Sometimes a character that you thought would be soft spoken turns out to be the wry voice of reason or the character you thought would be the sweetheart becomes the deadpan snarker. When characters change like this, the plan doesn't work anymore. The decisions that a character would make in a given situation will be different. Our new voice of reason, for instance, likely won't be the one to jump headfirst into a dangerous situation. This change will throw your outline out of whack--and that's okay. The end goal is laid out. Beyond that, you can see all of the moving pieces of the story. The outline will change, but you'll be able to cope because you'll see the changes that you'll need to make down the line. 

An outline won't make a story perfect. Even when using one well (which I've only really being doing recently), I still have to go through multiple drafts--though I've found I'm able to keep more of my previous drafts as I revise. And sometimes my writing flat out doesn't live up to the story that's been laid out. But having an outline makes it easier to see where I went wrong, to pick out what I need to fix.

There's no trick that makes writing easy. But having an outline--having an idea of where everything is going--can certainly help you get there and get their in a way that will make sense and engage your readers.